BULAWAYO: Pakistan will start their one-day international series against Zimbabwe as clear favourites, but captain Sarfraz Ahmed expects the hosts to be challenging opponents in their home conditions as their tour moves to Bulawayo for five games in the longer of cricket’s two short formats.
"The one-day series is important, and it’s not easy to play Zimbabwe in their home conditions," said Sarfraz.
"The matches are also starting very early. It’s probably even more cold in Bulawayo too, so it’s not going to be an easy series."
With this tour taking place in Zimbabwe’s winter, meaning early sunsets on a ground without any floodlights, the games will start at 9.15am local time (0715 GMT). That will make the toss important, as batting conditions can be difficult in the morning despite the Queens Sports Club track’s traditionally benign nature.
Spin can also be more of a factor at Queens, and Pakistan will be further buoyed by the possible return of legspinner Yasir Shah to their ODI playing XI.
Yasir, who last played an ODI for Pakistan against England at Trent Bridge two years ago, missed the most recent tour of England with a stress fracture but has been picked for the upcoming games. With teenage legspinner Shadab Khan also part of their squad, Pakistan have plenty of firepower should conditions favour spin.
As usual, they will also have plenty of pace options, with left-arm quick Junaid Khan returning to their ODI squad and likely to open the bowling with Mohammad Amir.
At the other end of the order, Imam ul Haq could return to partner the in-form Fakhar Zaman at the top of the order. Fakhar was named Player of the Series in the tri-series, scoring a career-best 91 to help Pakistan pull off a record chase in the final.
Zimbabwe are still missing several frontline players from their squad, with the likes of Brendan Taylor and Sikandar Raza absent after a dispute with the Zimbabwe Cricket board.
The experienced Hamilton Masakadza captains a squad that includes three players yet to debut in international cricket. Zimbabwe coach Lalchand Rajput promised Pakistan "a real fight" from a squad that still also includes several veterans alongside the rookies.
"Pakistan are very strong but our players are a little bit confident," Rajput said.
"The confidence we take from the T20I series will be shown in the ODI series as well. I am sure this team will definitely push Pakistan and make a real fight of the ODI series."
Pakistan have enjoyed unprecedented success in Twenty20 cricket this year, and solidified their number one ranking in the format with their victory over Australia in the tri-series final last weekend.
That has not been complemented by good form in ODIs, however, and they were thrashed 5-0 in their last bilateral one-day series, against New Zealand in January.
Zimbabwe are likely to present much less of a challenge, despite playing at home, and Pakistan’s primary target in the series opener on Friday will be to secure their first ODI win of 2018.